Making the case for therapeutic schools

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Shahana Knight, Director, TPC Therapy

In the last 50 to 100 years, children have changed – as have the many challenges they face in their young lives. The one thing that never seems to change is education...

Schools have long been in existence – since at least the 17th century according to some. The core objective of schooling has always been to teach children subjects that will help them to make an active contribution to society and the economy – focused on helping them to get a job.

Certainly, the core objective of education hasn’t changed in the last 50 to 100 years – but the students have. Let me explain...

First, the numbers of children suffering from adverse childhood experiences has increased. More children are living with domestic violence, loss, abuse and neglect and more children are being taken in to care.

The impact of trauma on the developing child’s brain is significant. It impairs their ability to make healthy relationships, understand, manage and control their behaviour, memorise and recall information and have a sense of purpose and self-belief.

Experiences of long-term trauma will actually change the brain, causing a child to constantly be alert to survival. The body is flooded with stress hormones which shut-down essential parts of the brain such as memory and recall, making learning difficult – especially at school.

Many of the simple things we expect children to be able to do become impossible and we experience the children as difficult, hyperactive and unfocused – when in fact these are symptoms of a child suffering from the long-term effects of trauma.

Second, the arrival of technology, including smartphones, has changed the way children experience childhood and is also having an adverse impact on child development. Children now rely on technology for the majority of their play, be that on a smartphone, tablet or a computer game. This is limiting the imaginative free play children have had in abundance in the past and has reduced the amount of time they spend outdoors.

Studies are beginning to emerge about the effects of mobile phones on young people’s development (for example, see Yan, 2017).

Other experts suggest that diagnoses of ADHD have increased, as have reports of depression and sleep disorders in young people. Some have even suggested that the smartphone screens activate the same area of the brain as opioids and cannabis! (see Giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine, says top addiction expert, The Independent, June 2017).

So when we say we are addicted to our phones – we are spot on. Using apps like Instagram and Facebook where “scrolling” through post after post is normal practice means that young people are finding it hard to just be in the moment and truly relax. When there is a moment of calm or quiet, they reach for their phone. As a result their brain is always active and relaxation and peace actually become triggers of anxiousness. Children who are hyper-stimulated are less likely to be able to concentrate, learn and recall information at school.

Parenting becomes increasing difficult when there are adverse experiences affecting the family dynamic. Drugs, domestic violence, abuse and alcohol all impact the parent’s ability to help a child navigate their way through their emotions and behaviours.

Children cannot understand or manage their feelings and therefore have low emotional intelligence. Similarly parents, who are “addicted” to their phones spend less time engaged in activities and conversation using use eye contact and touch to help their children develop the communication and social skills they need. A new age of attachment disorder is upon us, where parents are disengaged due to being on their phones.

Both the increase of adverse experiences and the amount of time children are spending using technology means that there are far more contributing factors creating barriers to learning. Suddenly children are walking into school with a real need to develop their emotional intelligence and their personal, social and emotional skills above anything else.

They are also in need of some parenting and attention. We cannot expect to teach children with basic development milestones missing.

However, with all of this knew knowledge, why is it that schools are still no different in their character and content than they were 50 or 100 years ago.

The student has changed, but the teaching and the organisation has not. We are still teaching the same subjects, with the same priorities, in the same way and expecting the same outcomes as we did in the past.

I see little effort – certainly in policy circles – to incorporate into the education system as a whole these differences that have evolved around us. Isn’t it ironic how fundamental childhood activities that were taken for granted in the past, have now become “therapeutic” for children?

Have you got a “forest school” yet? When did playing outside and exploring nature go from being a fundamental childhood rite of passage to a therapy that schools have had to provide.

Society has changed so much that we now consider what was once an everyday occurrence a therapy. Is it safe to say that childhood is in an age of deprivation?

Teaching needs to focus on children learning about themselves – managing the impact of the society we live in, being able to self-regulate, being able to understand others, developing relationship skills and learning about and developing their emotional intelligence. These skills are more valuable to children today than traditional lessons.

If we teach young people how to develop self-belief, self-confidence and self-awareness then we will be moulding people who are ready for the world and teaching them the life lessons they need to flourish.

Of course there is a place for traditional lessons, but first and foremost our schools should be a safe haven for developing the self above anything else. If we get this right then we will produce adults who are mentally able to become valuable contributors to society and inspire them to learn and flourish academically too.

Similarly the school environment needs to reflect these changes in society. If we know children are more likely to be hyperactive due to phone use or adverse experiences then let’s focus on creating calming schools.

Let’s revolutionise education and create schools that produce the type of teaching children need in 2018. It is the key to creating more capable and successful adults.

Further information

Child and Adolescent Use of Mobile Phones: An unparalleled complex developmental phenomenon, Yan, Child Development, May 2017:


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